How to Build Balsa Wood & Tissue Paper Airplanes

Updated April 17, 2017

Model kit assembly is made easier with precut balsa parts, prefabricated plastic, metal and paper. Most kits provide your basic design and describe options that you may wish to add now or later, i.e. a gas motor versus a rubber band or glider for free flight. Rigorously following kit instructions, you will learn the steps required to construct a model. This will prepare you to later build a scratch model from plans and materials. Pick a model that is in your area of interest by time period, WWI or WWII, or by type like a sea plane or a transport.

Organization is the first step to building a model. You will need a work board that has a soft, flat surface to accept pins. Gather your materials and open your kit. Read the instructions and all the notes on the plan to get a feel for the model. You can even pretend that you are going through the steps one by one. Make notations on anything you do not understand and seek clarification before you start. Now carefully pull out the precut balsa parts. Set all parts with the same letters together. Lay out your plans and cover them with waxed paper by pinning them to your work board.

Following your numbered instructions and looking at the plans, you can lay out parts for both sides of the wing, the tail and the elevator. Lay out formers and rib pieces. Cut out and pin in place on work board over its drawing outline on the plan. Then align and glue in place. Pins may be used to secure proper position. Let dry. Add any horizontal struts per instructions. Glue and let dry. Cut off loose waxed paper and glue and sand to smooth rough areas.

Take one side of the aeroplane's fuselage (body) and pin to the work board over wax-papered plan. Glue interior formers to it and let dry. Pin as needed. When dry, remove from work board and line up other side of fuselage with formers. Use two rubber bands, one at each end to hold fuselage pieces to the formers. Glue in place when aligned and let dry. Now add ribs per instructions and any other parts like landing gears, mock instrument panel, pilot, etc. Remove excess glue and lightly sand.

Add tissue paper in sections per schematic on instructions. Wet outermost surfaces of area to be covered with an adhesive like white wood glue diluted with water. Stretch and hold tissue or pin until dry. Keep adding tissue and trimming with razor blade until all parts are covered. Add plastic parts like front cowl or nose cone and canopy. Wings are added to fuselage with a dihedral or lift of around an inch at tips with body intact on the work board. Add tail section with stabiliser carefully aligned with wing and rudder at a right angle to wing and stabiliser. Glue and let dry.

If you want to fly your model, one or two light coats of clear dope will add strength and definition. Some enthusiasts like to fly the model once, then add extra weight with addition of paint according to the recommended colour scheme. This is what Howard Hughes did with his famous wooden "Spruce Goose" before retiring it to a museum. Special "hot fuel" dopes are necessary if you will gas power the model. Finally the addition of wet insignias that dry in place will need a coating of insignia clear dope to anchor firmly. Make sure they are correctly located to obtain the full realism on your model.


Spray fine mist of water to wet tissue paper in order to shrink for a tight fit. Do this a few times to obtain desired effect prior to doping or painting. Use fuel-proof paint if adding a gasoline motor.


Model paints are flammable--keep away from open flame. No smoking while painting or drying. Some glues and paints are toxic. Use with good ventilation. Keep away from young children Clean paint brushes carefully to avoid colour fadeover.

Things You'll Need

  • Razor blade knife
  • Needle-nose pliers
  • Scissors
  • Clear lacquer (dope)
  • Glues (wood and plastic)
  • Assorted model paints (see colour scheme)
  • sandpaper (fine)
  • Standard push pins
  • Waxed paper
  • Paint thinner
  • Assorted model brushes
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About the Author

Writing from his Cape Cod home alcove, Thomas Edward won American Express' National Humor Contest and wrote "Stern's Reminder," a nautical fiction, in 1999. His first professional publication in 2005, "My Fathers Who Art in Heaven," was followed by short stories in New England One magazine. Edward holds an M.S. in civil (environmental) engineering from the University of Cincinnati.